Commemorating our dear departed equal pay activists

By Rosemary Webb, Workers Online, 5 March 1999

Two women who deserve special recognition and commemoration  are Eileen Powell and Edna Ryan, both of whom played a crucial role in the struggle for equal pay.

Edna was born Edna Nelson in Sydney in 1904, the tenth of twelve children, her feminism and her socialism shaped by the working experiences of her older sisters, by her mother who had been left to support and bring up the family herself and by the events of her formative years, notably the October Revolution and the NSW General Strike of 1917.


Edna Ryan

Her book, Two Thirds of a Man covers the first four arbitration cases involving women, building anecdotally on the experience of her mother and of her older sisters. In interview she recalled that her mother, who worked as a cleaner, would pass her sisters on Pyrmont Bridge on her return home from work in the early morning, as they were leaving home to go to work.

It is no wonder she became passionate about conditions and pay equity for working women. She spoke with Joyce Stevens about her own experiences in 'Taking the Revolution Home' (1987) and with Lucy Taksa on 19 October 1987 as part of the NSW Bicentennial Oral History Project.

Her political activism began well before she joined the Communist Party (CPA) in 1927 , with the anti-conscription campaigns, the Great Strike in 1917, friendship with the IWW - one of her sisters married an IWW member. Immediately on joining the CPA at the age of 23 she became Secretary of the Sydney District Group and was involved in organising lectures and in giving them herself. And although she moved away from the Party after the 1929 Split, she never departed from her left political convictions. (Her husband Jack Ryan, as a non-recanting member of the Executive, had been one of those expelled). Eventually she joined the ALP.